topsy turvy

Around in circles: The utterly chaotic year in Brexit in 13 headlines

Spoilers: She didn’t do it.

A LOT HAS happened in the past 12 months when it comes to Brexit.

We’ve seen a UK prime minister come and go. We’ve watched a general election on the other side of the Irish Sea. A new speaker in the House of Commons. Endless debate and negotiations. 

However, in many ways not a lot has really changed in the past year either.

The UK is still in the EU. Despite all the false dawns and new deals and fresh votes, they’re still in Europe.

The at-times partisan British press have covered every step along the way and, to sum up the chaotic Brexit year that was 2019, here’s that story told in 13 headlines.


The first month of the year was a busy one for then-Prime Minister Theresa May. She started the year with a Brexit deal, agreed with the EU.

That deal was absolutely crushed in the House of Commons by 432 MPs voting against her. The Sun ran a story of May mocked up as a dodo the following day with the headline “Brextinct” and said “May’s Brexit deal dead as a dodo”. 

Less than two weeks later, it had all changed. MPs did vote for some kind of Brexit deal, appearing to give May a mandate to go seek a new deal and further concessions from the EU.

There were a few good candidates here, but we’ve gone with the Daily Express headline to mark May’s small victory (of sorts) on 30 January.

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Famed Brexit bogeyman Donald Tusk drew the ire of the diehards looking to leave the EU in February. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar quietly told Tusk that the British press would give him “terrible trouble” for his words on 6 February. He was right.

Here’s how City AM covered Tusk’s comments about whether there was a “special place in hell” for those who pushed for Brexit without a plan.

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So here it was. 29 March 2019 had been set two years previously as the date the UK would leave the EU.

Only, it didn’t leave. It still hasn’t left.

When MPs rejected leaving the EU without a deal, the papers the next day all led with variations on the word “meltdown”. 

MPs voted overwhelmingly to delay Brexit by three months. May kept trying to get her Brexit deal through the House of Commons. She failed, and failed, and failed again. The problem was that parliament could barely agree on any way forward.

With her grip on power loosening, May acknowledged that she wasn’t long for the job of prime minister by the end of the month.

The right-wing press cast it as a heroic sacrifice from May to get Brexit done, but the Guardian instead focused on the House of Commons impasse on 28 March.

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May seemingly did the unthinkable at the start of April, offering to work with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to try to reach some kind of consensus on a way forward.

The Daily Telegraph rounded on the prime minister, saying: “Cabinet backs no-deal Brexit but May turns to Corbyn instead.” The Sun suggested May had “gone soft” and asked “Is that your bright idea?”

The more left-leaning papers also revelled in May’s travails. The Daily Mirror featured a sombre May with the headline: “Help Me, Jeremy”.

But it was the Metro that wins this round with this 3 April front page.

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If a week is a long time in politics, how long does a few months feel? From the bullish May fresh from agreeing a deal with the EU at the beginning of the year, it all ended in tears.

The right-wing press had fully turned on her as it came into the month of May. When she eventually resigned, it was an emotional end as she made a closing speech outside Number 10.

In a flavour of what was to come, the Telegraph ran a photo of May with the headline “Boris makes Brexit vow in Push for No 10″.

The Daily Mail, meanwhile, kept it simple.

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By now, the three-month delay to Brexit has been extended. The latest deadline is 31 October.

As Tory hopefuls were vying for the chance to be the next prime minister, Boris Johnson stood out as a clear favourite.

Despite the revelations contained in a Guardian scoop about police being called to the home he shared with his girlfriend, he appeared unassailable in his premiership bid.

He was also making bullish statements on the campaign trail.

Like this one, covered by the Guardian and everyone else on 26 June.

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To no-one’s surprise, Johnson then became prime minister in July. 

Where to start with this one? The papers were as partisan as ever on this one. 

The Scottish Sun mocked Johnson up as Buzz Lightyear with the headline “to insanity and beyond”. The Daily Mirror featured photos of Johnson in all sorts of situations with the headline “it’s really not funny any more”.

But it’s this effort from The Daily Telegraph that made one or both of Coen Brothers cry on 23 July wins the day here.

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Johnson’s first few weeks in the jobs featured a number of tasks. First, he had to manoeuvre against parliament and also try to negotiate a new deal with the EU. 

His decision to prorogue parliament to try to prevent it getting in his way would later prove to be unlawful, and it drew fury when it was announced in August.

Quite how bad a no deal Brexit would be, meanwhile, was laid bare in a scoop by the Sunday Times  on 17 August.

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To try and get the mandate to push through the Brexit he wanted, Johnson tried and failed to call an election for mid-October in September. 

Labour said they wouldn’t agree to an election unless a no-deal Brexit was taken off the table, and this is something Johnson refused to rule out.

In fact, this month he said he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than not leave the EU on 31 October.

More on that later.

He also suffered the indignity of his own brother resigning because he couldn’t support his plans. Speaking of indignity, another animal mock up from the Sun came this month attacking “cowardly Jez” (Jeremy Corbyn).

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Despite the repeated rhetoric that the deal Theresa May had agreed with the UK couldn’t be reopened, it could and was reopened. Against all odds, Johnson won a couple of concessions and gave up some of his own to reach a new deal with the EU.

The right-wing papers struck a joyful tone but, again, the British prime minister didn’t quite have the numbers to get the Brexit deal through parliament.

Those concessions on the UK side that came at the expense of what the DUP wanted proved crucial, as highlighted by the Financial Times on 18 October.

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After months – and years, really – of impasse, it was announced the British people were set to go to the polls again to elect a new government.

Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn were the only realistic hopefuls looking to occupy Number 10 after the 12 December election. 

On 5 November, the prime minister launched the Conservative campaign on the front page of the Daily Telegraph comparing Corbyn to Stalin.

Labour, meanwhile, kept it less inflammatory with its “10-point plan to save the NHS” on the cover of the Daily Mirror a week later.

The Conservatives enjoyed a clear lead in the opinion polls but the first time the two leaders clashed in a live TV debate it was something of a stalemate.

The Times played it straight with their front page on 19 November.

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A long, tumultuous year in Brexit ended with Boris Johnson and the Conservatives romping home to victory in the general election.

As you might expect, there were some very different takes in the papers the following day. 

The Daily Express was predictably jubilant.

download - 2019-12-16T163048.284 Daily Express Daily Express

While the Mirror lamented a “nightmare before Xmas”.

download - 2019-12-16T163117.292 Daily Mirror Daily Mirror

Brexit may now be quieter next year, but don’t surprise if “getting Brexit done” takes a longer than Johnson’s promise of 31 January. 

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